‘Vexers’, beautiful questions & Multiplicity: 3 innovation culture lessons from pioneers

For most of us - those regular people, who are not Steve Jobs or Jack Ma - innovation feels quite unnatural. That’s nothing to be ashamed of: our lizard brain...

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October 26, 2017
Team Engagement

Find the ‘Vexers’

People are naturally drawn to people that are just like them. In fact, you can even make yourself likeable to others through the psychological effect called ‘mirroring’: by imitating how they move, speak or behave. It should not come as a surprise that companies tend to hire the same type of people, who will fit the company like a glove. People who know the same things, see the same things and do the same things.

I was really intrigued by an opinion piece of CEO of ZestFinance (and former Google CIO) Douglas Merill on the subject. He claimed that companies should not “hire a clone” but “hire people who annoy [them]”. Now, in this era’s obsessive focus on company culture, this might sound really counterintuitive. But it’s not. By “annoying people” he does not mean jerks, obviously. He means people that think alternatively, act differently, know things that you don’t and might annoy you because they keep challenging you. People from different sectors. People who ask (and, yes, we’re back to square one) annoying questions like “Why are we doing this in this way and not in that way?”. So hire “vexers”. Employ “annoying” people who are not like you.

In fact, you should not just find, hire (and protect) annoying employees, you ought to look out for “irritating” customers as well: those that make you feel uncomfortable because they ask very difficult questions. In ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ Peter Hinssen describes visionary design thinker Mickey McManus and his “pollutants”: those outlier customers that drive Day After Tomorrow innovation and to accomplish 'crazy' things that have never been done before. Like James Cameron who asked Autodesk to help him pioneer brand-new methods of virtual moviemaking for Avatar and in doing so pushed both himself and the company to a whole new level. Some companies would regard this type of customers as troublesome, while they should be cherished as triggers of innovation.

Last, but not least, find those ‘vexing’ small-scale and agile competitors who seem harmless just because they are undersized and very different from you, but who are fishing in the exact same pond as you. Find them, study them, learn from them or try to partner with them. But never ignore them. In fact, if they seem more annoying than scary to you, then they are actually exactly where the next storm will be coming from.

Culture = people + tech

When companies think about innovation culture, all they tend to really see is people working together, communicating and building things. Wat they seem to forget is that technology is an integrated part of that culture.

“Humans will no longer be ‘using’ machines. They will have to work together with them. The relationship will be social, not operational.”

Let me explain. The dichotomy between technology and people always is a lot like the Cartesian dualism between our minds and our body: claiming that both are completely separate things, while they are deeply connected instances (of which the sum of the parts is bigger than the whole). Just like that, the innovation DNA and culture of a company is a balanced and emergent fusion of people and technology. You need both. And both are growing closer together as we speak. Some types of AI as used by IBM, Google and Facebook use neural networks, for instance, which mimic the workings of the brain. And pioneers like Neuralink, DARPA, BrainCo Neurable and Eyemind are investigating how brain-computer interfaces can help us merge better with computers.

Tech has become so smart that it would be a mistake to merely view it as a tool. In the coming years, and sooner than we think, humans will no longer be ‘using’ machines. They will have to work together with them. Collaboration, not handling. There will be social and emotional implications. If you think that’s insane, just remember that humans tend to humanize machines, even the really ‘stupid’ ones. This Eliza effect - which was already observed as far as 1966 - lets us unconsciously assume computer behaviours are analogous to human behaviours. Just imagine what will happen if our assistants will be really smart AI bots and our receptionist robots. Our ‘social’ interactions with them will impact company culture. If we want humans to feel happy and safe on the job, we will need to think about this. In this light, Ken Goldberg proposes the Multiplicity: an inclusive and hybrid model where groups of humans collaborate efficiently with groups of machines to achieve superior results. I highly recommend Goldberg’s excellent op-ed on the matter: The Robot-Human Alliance

Even though this collaboration might seem to be a Day After Tomorrow challenge (which I do believe we must think about now), tech is clearly interwoven through the fabric of our innovation culture already: it’s what connects us, allows us to collaborate, communicate, brainstorm and find ideas. And if we change the technology of our companies, so must our human systems. Toyota is one of the first companies who ever understood this when it introduced robotics onto its assembly lines in the 1980s. According to ‘The Conversation’ in Futurism “Unlike rivals such as General Motors that followed a sequential strategy, the Japanese automaker redesigned its work systems at the same time, which allowed it to get the most out of the new technologies and its employees.” Tech is no longer a layer “on top” of our employees. It’s ingrained in the culture and part of the systems we both function in: whether it’s the whole company or its innovation culture.

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and science on the way we work, consume and live our lives.
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October 26, 2017
Team Engagement